Enneagram Styles and Distress and Eustress

by Jerry Wagner, Ph.D.

     Who isn’t distressed these days?  If you’re not, you’ve either died recently or you’re drinking too much Scotch.  The latter got me thinking about good stress and bad stress and inevitable suffering and unnecessary suffering.  Some stress we bring on ourselves and some suffering we generate ourselves.

     Then I thought about Enneagram styles.  What’s good stress (like the late Congressman John Lewis’s notion of “good trouble”) for each style?   And how does each style create their own distress?  What’s the natural resilience of each style?  And how does overdoing a good thing (eustress) bring about a bad thing (distress)?

     Somewhere in every introductory psychology textbook is a chart that looks like a bell curve or a Volkswagen Beetle that shows an optimal level of functioning and arousal at the top of the bell curve.  To function at our best, we need a little stimulation, excitement, anxiety to get us up for the game.

      If we are feeling too confident or lazy, we don’t exert enough effort to function optimally to win the game or at least play well.  At the bottom of the beginning of the curve is sleep.  This is where my undergraduate students dwelled.  If there is not enough stimulation or if we are bored, we fall asleep.  Unless we do something to wake up and get excited.  Fidget, check the latest sales on Google, pull the hair of the person in front of us.  (No, wait, that was grade school.)

     If we get too excited (like when I talk about the Enneagram) or overly anxious (like our scholarship depends on passing this test or our opponent just won their last 127 games), this added energy interferes with our optimal functioning and we flub the fingering of that Bach cantata or hit the ball into the net or, in my case, into another fairway.  At the bottom on the right side or downside of that bell curve lies a panic attack, the end result of too much anxiety.

     A little excitement and nervousness promote optimal functioning; too much stimulation leads to shutting down, tuning out, and falling asleep or ramping up, spinning out, and shooting energy in all directions, like a Van de Graaff generator.  (Look it up.  I had to.)

Van de Graaff generator, a hair-raising experience

So, what does each Enneagram style do to reach optimal functioning?  How does just the right amount of stress become eustress?  And how does each Enneagram style overdo their strategies to create distress?  Like the three little pigs, you want your porridge not too cold, not too hot, but just right.  Which brings us to the ONES.


     What gets ONES motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     ONES get up for the game by wanting to perform really well.  They want to do all they can to make a really good product – whether it be a good term paper, a good chicken fricassee, a good relationship with their spouse and children – anything they are engaged in.  They have a passion for excellence and feel good when they have done something exceptionally well.   Don’t we all.  Even some of my undergraduate students.  This is eustress at its best.

      ONES’ resilience comes from their desire to be all they can be and do what they are doing impeccably.  They are naturally persistent, conscientious, responsible, intense (like a laser, not a forest fire.)

     So, what’s the ONES’ version of turning good news into bad news?  Doing too much of a good thing.  Want to distress yourself?  Tell yourself you HAVE to be perfect and do everything impeccably.  If you want to be loved and accepted, you have to be right and you can’t make mistakes.  Who says so?  The ONES.  Or their ONE parents, teachers, church, culture, etc.   Being a good person leads to optimal functioning.  Being a perfect person leads to why bother trying or dying trying.  Neither bring about particularly good results.  I still like the English essayist G.K. Chesterton’s quip: “Anything worth doing is worth doing half well.”  Not a good clarinet player?  No matter.  Making music is a good thing.  Either Chesterton was not a ONE or was a reformed ONE.

     ONES bring on themselves distress and unnecessary suffering by trying to be perfect.  Too many “shoulds” make their blood pressure and resentment rise.  They need to find that happy point between not trying and trying too hard.  “I’m doing the best I can with what I have available right now.”  See the 12-step prayer for wisdom.


     What gets TWOS motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     TWOS say they enjoy giving and loving and being helpful.   It’s something that flows naturally from their nature.  They are attuned, both innately and through practice, to other’s feelings and needs.  And they generously respond to others’ requirements.  Giving is their version of a “flow” state.  It comes easily and naturally and is intrinsically reinforcing.  Getting appreciation is a nice bonus, but not required.

     Seeking out connections and relationships contributes to their own as well as others’ well-being.  Forming community fosters their resilience.  Their optimism and prosocial nature help them survive and thrive by giving them meaning and purpose, and carrying them through life in the company of others.

     And how do TWOS invite distress into their lives?  By doing too much of the above.  Their helping becomes something they HAVE to do to gain approval and avoid rejection.  They erringly believe their worth comes more from giving themselves than simply being themselves.  To get their needs met, they have to meet everyone else’s needs first.  And since, according to the rules of their TWO paradigm, they are not allowed to ask for what they want, they have to indirectly get their needs met.  We, of course, don’t catch onto what they need, since they’ve never expressed them. So, they get resentful.  And that’s stressful.

     So, how do they reduce this brought-on distress?   Acknowledge and express their needs.  It won’t kill us or them and it surprisingly makes them even more lovable.  Who would’ve thought?


     What gets THREES motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     THREES get energy and satisfaction from getting things accomplished.  A good day for THREES is when they got a lot done.  They like progress. They like to win.   A particularly irascible famous tennis player said it wasn’t so much winning that he liked; he hated losing.  They enjoy promoting their products and rallying their team.   They value movement.  “Motion is the lotion,” as my physician likes to say.  Perhaps THREES were the original peripatetic philosophers.  They thought best while walking.  Pushing, challenging, competing get their energy up.

     THREES confidence, competence, and optimistic prognostications provide them a natural resilience.  They can carry us along with their enthusiasm.

     How do THREES distress themselves and bring on unnecessary suffering?  They push themselves too much, straining their emotional and physical muscles.  The body wears out and the psyche gets depressed.  Instead of bringing us along with them, they run over us or drag us along.  So, they are either out there ahead alone or they are running with logs (us) tied to their legs.

     They manufacture the wrong idea that they MUST succeed in order to be admired and be sent to the head of the class or the corner office verses relegated to the back row or the cubicle.  They confuse being effective with being a workaholic.  Burning out is the THREES’ version of the Phoenix.  Fortunately, they frequently rise from the ashes of bankruptcy, divorce, lost tournaments, etc.

     When we’re in a “flow” state, our actions flow effortlessly.  When we’re rushing instead of flowing, we miss the present.  As the proverb advises: “Slow down and smell the roses.”  Which brings us to beauty and the FOURS.


     What gets FOURS motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     FOURS function well in the land of feelings and imagination.  Their feelings give them energy; their imagination gives them direction.  FOURS remind us that creativity is very healing and life-giving, as is beauty.  We can only take so much ugliness before we get sick to our stomach and soul.  A forest cleansing refreshes the spirit.

    FOURS are sensitive to suffering – their own and others – which helps them process it and find meaning in it, which is a source of resiliency in FOURS.  It addresses those four givens that existentialists talk about: death, responsibility, isolation, meaninglessness.  Subjects that most of us would prefer to avoid.  But FOURS invite us to the depths of our existence.  While we might say: “No thanks;” they say: “Don’t be afraid of the dark.  Make friends with your shadow.  There’s a lot of good stuff there.”

     So how do FOURS bring on distress and unnecessary suffering vs. the “necessary losses” that come with existence?  They spend too much time in the shadows and not enough time in the light.  Their melancholy or sweet sadness descends into depression and they tire of alliteration – life, I mean.   Their suffering makes them special and shows up in their subtypes when they become long-suffering, or wear their suffering on their sleeves, or make us suffer for all we’ve done to them.

     They get the wrong idea that there is something wrong with them and they are missing something.  Their ego misses what is there.   “Right now, I have everything I need to be perfectly happy.”  No need to be depressed or enviously look around at others’ good fortune.  You already have what you are longing for.  Recall Dorothy, the scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion.  They were already home, had a brain, a heart, and guts.  All three centers bring us home.  Can’t beat it.


     What gets FIVES motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     FIVES function well in the land of concepts.  Thinking turns them on.  Their passions are of the mind.  This may sound pathetic unless you’re a FIVE.  A little analysis, a little connecting the dots, a little seeing how this situation fits in with the big picture, a little research into the best product for the best price – all these get FIVES excited and up for the game.  FIVES love to learn.

     Their ability to detach, stand back (but not stand down), be objective, let their inner observer notice what’s going on are all sources of resilience for FIVES.  In Karen Horney’s theory, we all need to move towards, move against, and move away from the situations we find ourselves in.  FIVES got the moving away from down; EIGHTS specialize in moving against; while TWOS are really good at moving towards.

     FIVES are good listeners and are perceptive.  Now they need to act on what they hear and see.  When they let themselves experience, they can actually learn from their experience.  Hence the gift of the FIVE: wisdom.

     So, how do FIVES distress themselves?  They think too much and may experience analysis paralysis.  Sometimes “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.”  Thank you, Blasé Pascal.  And sometimes the body knows and “keeps the score.”  Thank you, Bessel Van Der Kolk.  Sometimes FIVES need to cede their head’s pride of place to their heart or gut.  Or, keep all three; IQ, EQ, and SQ.  Thank you, George Gurdjieff.

     Backing into their cave and refusing to come out leads to unnecessary suffering for FIVES.  It gets cold, sparse, and boring in the castle.  FIVES fear being deprived.  But who’s doing the depriving?  If FIVES believe the world is withholding, they offer their own withholding in return.

     Also, not speaking up, not saying what they want or don’t want, not asking for help – all bring about more trouble and suffering than they’re worth.


    What gets SIXES motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     The good and the bad news for SIXES is their fear and anxiety get them up for the game.  Too little energy and they fall asleep like NINES; too much anxiety and they tremble and doubt like, well, SIXES; just the right amount of stimulation and they function really well like THREES.

     A modicum of worst-case scenario thinking leads to trouble shooting, problem solving, being prepared, and coming up with Plans A through Z.  Mother Nature has built in an alarm system in the amygdala to help us survive so we can thrive.  When the alarm is stuck on red alert, SIXES spend a lot of energy on mythical monsters.  They are good at scaring themselves.  Their natural safety features malfunction or over-function and become debilitating rather than life-saving.

     Mother nature has also figured out that we survive and thrive best when we are with others.  SIXES are good groupies.  They contribute their skills to the group (like, hey Zebras, there’s a lion over there) and the group shares its wisdom with SIXES through culture.  Pretty good exchange.

     Like the rest of us, SIXES bring on distress when they engage in too much of a good thing.  They often see danger where there isn’t any.  They get a lot of false positives.  That is, they leave the building in the middle of the night when there isn’t a fire.  On the other hand, staying in the building when there is a fire (a false negative), isn’t a great idea, either.  

     Being alert to hidden intentions or creatures lurking in the bushes is beneficial.  Being paranoid paradoxically leaves one isolated, which Mother Nature discovered was not a good defense.

     While a little self-doubt saves one from the downfall of the proud and over-confident, too much doubt leads to not trusting oneself or others.  Goodbye self-efficacy; hello over-reliance on or suspicion of outer authorities.   Erik Erikson said trust and mistrust were skills to be learned in the first stage of our development.  Too much trust and we are Pollyannas; too much distrust and we are paranoids.  Just the right amount of both and we are perfect.  But we’ve already talked about the ONES.  What about the Pollyannas?


     What gets SEVENS motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     SEVENS are blessed with an optimistic, sunny, enthusiastic, curious, creative nature.  What’s not to like?  All of this leads to the “Unsinkable Molly Brown.”  SEVENS just keep coming back for more.  We’ll see that this is not an unmixed blessing.  But the optimum amount of optimistic good cheer makes SEVENS very resilient.  It’s hard to keep a helium balloon under water.

     SEVENS have the ability to soar above or ahead of troubles.  Their facility to plan for future fun-filled possibilities gets them moving forward.  In their worldview, the world is their oyster, filled with adventure and all good things.  This is a definite improvement over other world-views that the universe is critical, selfish, chaotic, abandoning, withholding, dangerous, hostile, and uncaring.   As SEVENS say: “Who wouldn’t want to be a SEVEN?”

     Well, there are some drawbacks.  How do SEVENS bring on stress and unnecessary suffering?  They try too hard to stay up and avoid getting down.   Once depressed, always depressed they fear. So, look up and look ahead.  But their FOMO, fear of missing out, ironically leads them to missing out on some good things.  They don’t believe anything useful can come from the Winter of Our Discontent.   Things do grow in the cold and the dark; suffering can be redemptive; desolation can be as beneficial as consolation.  That’s all pretty much of a stretch for SEVENS.  Try it.  You may not like it.  But it might be good for you.

     By spending too much time in the future, SEVENS don’t savor the present which is the only real time.  They believe that when they get there, they’ll be happy.  Actually, it’s when they get here that they’ll be happy and fulfilled.  Their future-focused fantasies pull them out of the nourishing satisfying experiences in the present.


     What gets EIGHTS motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     EIGHTS are said to have the most energy of all the Enneagram types.  They are naturally robust, vital, confident, and decisive.  They believe in “carpe diem.”  Take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.  “Strike while the iron is hot,” especially useful for blacksmiths.  Obstacles are challenges, not show-stoppers.  An initial “no” is just the opening gambit to “getting to yes.”   They take pride in being independent, autonomous, their own person.  As Fritz Perls pronounced: they’re not here to live up to our expectations; they do their own thing.

     They are not overburdened by unnecessary guilt.  They have a winner, come out on top mentality that makes them very resilient.  “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” (Or, get shopping – but that’s the previous type.)

      With their positive outlook, magnanimous heart, and storehouse of energy, EIGHTS are equipped to survive and thrive.

     So, how do EIGHTS turn eustress into distress?  By living with too much gusto, intensity, and independence.  We are interdependent beings – not too dependent and not too independent.  Again, balance.  EIGHTS tend to tip the scale to independent, then find themselves unsupported.  Their tough shell protects their tender innards but doesn’t let that inner self be nourished and grow.

     They bring about suffering by sensing slights where there might not be any, then feeling indignant and disrespected, then getting angry, then getting feisty or getting even.  Vengeance is mine, saith the EIGHT.  Most of this is made up and so unnecessary.  They fire up their sympathetic nervous system for a fight that may not have to happen.  Fighting for the underdog is good; fighting imaginary enemies is exhausting.


     What gets NINES motivated, functioning optimally, and what is their natural resilience?

     Motivation and NINES seems like an oxymoron.  So, what gets them moving and unsettled? Perhaps conflict acts as a negative reinforcement.  With positive reinforcement, you give someone something they want.  With negative reinforcement, you remove something the person doesn’t want. Either works to strengthen the desired behavior.

      Negative reinforcement generates an obnoxious situation that creates discomfort, pain, anxiety, etc. that we are stimulated to remove.  For example, a fire alarm creates a pain in the ear which leads to leaving the building; a nagging parent creates a pain in the ear which leads to taking out the garbage or doing your homework; a tantrum-throwing two-year old creates a pain in the ear which leads to giving them an ice cream cone, toy, whatever.  Conflict makes NINES anxious and moves them to employ their best negotiating and mediating skills to reduce the conflict.  Procrastination also initially lessens anxiety.  But we’re talking about positive strategies here.

     Staying calm, unflappable, and steady in the face of adversity contribute to the NINE’S resilience.  Their adaptable nature helps them fit into their surroundings to survive and thrive.  They can even adapt to inhospitable environments.  They’ll need these strategies given the current happenings in nature and politics.

     When NINES are functioning optimally, they don’t get in their own way.  They go with the flow.  They don’t push, reverse, drain, pollute, or otherwise disturb the river.

     How does being calm, then, bring about distress?  Well, you can burn if you don’t get out of the fiery forest or drown if you don’t get away from the flooding river.   NINES might stay in a dysfunctional family or with an abusive partner much longer than is healthy for them.  Doing nothing doesn’t necessarily bring about change.  Leaning into their EIGHT or ONE wings might be a more proactive way to go.

     Avoiding conflict doesn’t make it go away.  It just postpones it.  And oftentimes the conflict is worse when you don’t deal with the situation right away.  Avoiding stress at the beginning brings about distress at the end.   Though, NINES do say they function efficiently an hour before the deadline is due.  Perhaps this is their version of eustress or optimal level of arousal.  They rouse themselves from their self-induced stupor, get focused, get busy, and get the job done.  That sounds a lot like the NINE accessing their inner THREE.  The turtle turns into the hare at the finish line.


     Each Enneagram style has its own brand of resilience.   That’s why they’re all still around.  And each adaptive strategy contributes to the well being and continued being of the community.  Mother Nature evolved some good instincts and styles.

      The right amount of stress, excitement, and arousal lead to optimal functioning.  Too much or too little energy lead to sub-optimal functioning.  Eustress gets us up for the game; distress takes us out of the game.

      So, stop distressing yourself and start eustressing yourself.  It’s good for all of us.

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